Just a Girl in Senior English

I dreaded my College Composition course in the fall of 1981. Not because I hated writing, but rather because of the teacher I was assigned – Mr. Luther Stewart. Mr. Stewart had a reputation at Scottsdale High School which included failing my brother in Freshman English. He was not to be trifled with. (And yes, he would hate that dangling preposition.)

Rumor was that Mr. Stewart had, at one point, been a lawyer but left it all to become a teacher. He looked more teacherly than lawyerly, with a largish bald head and over-sized glasses that magnified his glaring eyes. He didn’t smile much.

My own knowledge of Mr. Stewart stretched back to the first day of sophomore Advanced English, and he was my assigned teacher then. During the previous year, I had been on a Rumspringa of sorts from my regular academic persona. I discovered boys and drinking. I almost failed Algebra. I got kicked out of a class once, and I made my family very nervous. “What happened to Mary?” they all asked.

On that first day of sophomore year, Mr. Stewart passed out a chunky list of required reading, which consisted of no less than 25 classic texts. My then-14-year-old self balked and quickly retreated to a “regular” English class for the rest of the year.

Fast-forward to senior year, and Mr. Stewart was again on my slate of classes. This time, there was nowhere to run, and I resigned myself to being in his class. I entered Mr. Stewart’s room with a great deal of shame and a definite lack of belief in myself.

The regular assignment in his class was a weekly essay, and he allowed us to choose topics that were personally meaningful. I remember one such essay I wrote: “A Girl Should Make Her Prom Dress Instead of Buying One.” Let’s unpack this title for a moment. I am a “girl” in the 80’s. My pressing topic is prom dresses, and above that I am hell-bent on sewing my own.

I was a pom-pom girl. My path set out by my parents was to become a wife and mother (in that exact order). Nobody took me seriously, and I didn’t either. Enter Mr. Stewart. Our College Composition class was full of lively discussion, although the boys in the class were most vocal. On more than one occasion, Mr. Stewart would stomp his foot, raise his hand in the air, and exclaim, “Form follows the function of a reasoning mind!” We had debates in class such as “What is truth?” He taught us the art and science of argumentation.

As each week progressed, Mr. Stewart would provide detailed feedback on my essays, and his red pen was all over my papers. But deep down, I knew that level of feedback meant he cared and that I had something to offer. I felt like more than just a girl to be cast aside. My voice mattered.

With each essay, his ice melted, his encouragement ramped up, and I started to look forward to the weekly challenge of impressing him. Towards the end of the school year, he wrote the following feedback on one of my essays: “Sounds like you – a high compliment!” Today, I have these words on a sticky note on my desk, and I believe that praise is why I love writing today. And, it’s why, as a teacher, I want to hear and honor the voices of all my students.

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